Loving your country enough to hear a prophetic rebuke

Pulling away from the taco truck, Timothy eased the delivery truck out into unusually heavy traffic. It seems there was a parade or protest or something going on. Patrick bellyached, “Timothy, would you look at those people waving the Mexican flag right here!”  Timothy rolled his eyes and said, “Patrick, didn’t you dress up like a leprechaun, paint the kids hair green, and wave the “Tricolar” last Saint Patrick’s Day?” A sense of home, place, and belonging is a tricky and at times dangerous thing. We love our places, our teams, our parties and entertainers and sometimes that love blinds us and leads to oppression and evil.  

Our lectionary passage from Acts 5 does the preacher no favors on this Fourth weekend. The disciples demand accountability from church leaders for the unjust murder of Jesus. The church council back peddles defensively trying to side-step any part in systemic injustice. Sinfully, some church folks have mistakenly tried to hold the whole Jewish nation accountable for Jesus’ death. However, everyone in the story is Jewish- Jesus, Peter, James, John, the high priest, and even King Herod; only Pilate, who ordered Jesus’ execution, is not Jewish. The racist, partisan or personal blaming of others frees us from deeply examining ourselves. The Acts 5 news story reports that a well-respected Pharisee, a teacher of the Jewish law, and member of the aforementioned church court becomes the voice for tolerance and liberation. Gamaliel defends Peter and John demanding, “Let them go! If their plan or activity is of human origin, it will end in ruin. If it originates with God, you won’t be able to stop them. Instead, you would actually find yourselves fighting God!”  Racism, nationalism, sexism, and every other  “ism” needs false facts for fuel. The disciples stood up and demanded justice for Jesus. Gamaliel argues for a kind of separation of church and state, trusting God to change hearts. Jesus’ crucifixion should always encourage the separation of church and state. And yet the prophets rebuke systems reminding us of Uvaulde, The Pulse, George, and Brianna. The prophets pearce national mythologies. The very idea of Christian nationalism violates the first of the Ten Commandments, “You must not have any other gods before Me.” (Exodus 20) 

In 1963, after being arrested and jailed for parading without a permit, Dr. King wrote from inside a Birmingham jail, “There are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. ‘An unjust law is no law at all.’ (St. Augustine) Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law… Any law that uplifts human (dignity) is just. Any law that degrades human (dignity) is unjust… We can never forget that everything that Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal.’ It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany…” Letter from a Birmingham City Jail, April 1963. We must examine each law and legislator if they extend loving-kindness to neighbors, offer hospitality to strangers, ensure justice to immigrants, and protect the vulnerable?  (Luke 10; Matthew 25; Leviticus 19:33)

 A deep love of the place is not evil.  It is wonderful to sing America the Beautiful and even Rocky Top, if you went there.  A sense of home is often healthy; indeed, a lack of fondness for our homelands may indicate a need for reconciliation.  If someone seems to loves your place less than you do, try listening to their story. Perhaps they have not enjoyed the same privileges you have. Still, we all need places to be from- place of belonging. Healthy patriotism flows from a sense of belonging, being, and connection. Dance to a Native drum, wave your flag, put on orange overalls, and enjoy the fireworks. Place matters. In Genesis 28, Jacob encounters God while running away. “Jacob named that sacred place Bethel [that is, the house of God]; but the name of that city was called Luz.” Every space is sacred. Everyone’s place matters to God. Not even a sparrow dies apart from God’s concern. (Luke 12) On Pentecost we celebrate how God’s Spirit flows to every nation under heaven. (Acts 2, 10) However, nationalistic theologies pervert our love of place into an idolatrous notion that God loves our nation more than others. Christian Nationalism has played its part in unspeakable evils from slavery to taking Native lands. In 1933, a 27-year old German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, preached against the growing wave of German nationalism that was infecting German churches, “In the church we have only one altar. And that is the altar of the Most High, the Only One, the Lord to whom alone is due honor and adoration; the Creator, before whom all creatures must kneel, before whom the most powerful is nothing but dust. We have no auxiliary altars for the adoration of the Furor. The worship of God, not the Furor, happens here at the altar of the church. Anyone who wants anything else may stay away; they cannot stay with us in the house of God. Anyone who requires an altar for themselves or anything else mocks God, and God is not mocked.”  No flag, seal, pledge, or love of place should ever shake our deepest allegiance to God.  

Our allegiance to God extends to challenging church authority. In Matthew 23 Jesus lays into the church with such vigor that the 3-year lectionary cycle never touches the deep end of the chapter where Jesus says, “You shut people out of the kingdom of heaven. You make your disciples twice the children of hell that you are. You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, but you kill, crucify, or run today’s prophets out of your churches and towns.”  Love your church, but don’t be blind to it’s sins. 

So what is the heart of God’s higher or moral law? We love God by loving our neighbor as ourselves. Agape Love or “redemptive goodwill for all people” is the golden ruler to measure every law. (MLK definition) Our neighbors are not just Tennesseans, but residents of New Mexico, Mexico, Canada, and the Ukraine. In Luke 10, Jesus tells a story about a Good Samaritan that defines neighbors as people in need! Jesus commands Christian’s offer “redemptive goodwill” to our enemies. John Wesley takes it one step further telling us to love even the enemies of God.  So we have this tightrope to walk: we call out injustice, maybe even flip over some tables, but we do this with a goal of redemption, reconciliation, and restoration of all people. Love always longs for healing. Justice longs for the healing of a nation. The prophetic correction always pivots toward love. 

During seminary I was enamored with a powerful prophetic voice. I was delighted to meet a colleague of this prophet! As I gushed about the prophet, my new colleague chuckled and said, “Listen, I’m not sure he is a prophet. But, he is a jerk!” She then went on to burst my idolatrous bubble with a few stories of my prophet brooding, being rude, dismissive of students, and joyless or judgy in faculty meetings. I said, “Well, I think they are still an important spiritual voice for our times.” My iconoclastic friend said, “Sure, but ‘The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.’” (Galatians 5) It is easy to grow bitter, tired, and get stuck in something less than redemptive goodwill for all people. Dr. King, America’s great prophet, warns all of us, “I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many Klansmen and too many white citizens councils in the south to want to hate, myself, because every time I see it, I know that it does something to their faces and their personalities, and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love.” (speech “Where Do We Go From Here” at SCLC) The truly corrective word always pivots toward loving-kindness. 

The prophetic correction seeks to bring healing, restoration, reconciliation, resurrection, and renewal of our belovedness. The goal of the Southern Christian Leadership Council was “to save the soul of America.”  Love woos people towards a soul-level change that the angriest  rebuke or an army’s power can not muster. Let’s revisit Jesus’ harshest words for the church authorities from Matthew 23, “You shut people out of the kingdom of heaven… You kill, crucify, and run today’s prophets out of your churches …” If we stop before the pivot we will miss Jesus weeping over the oppressors’ fate. The prophetic word must always pivot to loving-kindness, redemptive goodwill, and restorative justice. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You who kill the prophets and stone those who were sent to you. How often I wanted to gather your people together, just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.” The cross reminds us that Jesus longs for even the worst people to find their way back to wholeness. “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) 

So, I say today, celebrate the places you are from. Love them. Celebrate hot chicken, the Jubilee Singers, Gospel, jazz, Motown, hip-hop, rap, bluegrass, boot scootin’ boogies, blackberry cobbler, Freedom Riders, lunch counter courage, death-camp liberators, foreign aid, fireworks, and freedom.  Give thanks for the places you are from!  However, as you wave your flag remember that your deepest allegiance belongs to God alone. And if you hear some corrective Word or even angry Word (like Jesus’ words in Mark 3 or Matthew 23), love your land enough to hear the prophetic rebuke. Love your home enough to wrestle with that challenging Word.  Who knows, that Word might help make our homeland a home for all people. It might perfect our union.  And let us remember, again and again, to pivot back towards love, to stick with love, for only love can heal us and create a home for all of us. Amen.

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